The Auto Club 400 won't take place until Sunday at 3 p.m. on Fox, but every NASCAR Sprint Cup driver took to the track jockeying for position in a field that only consisted of 43 drivers.
While every driver went into the qualifying event with knowledge that they had a spot in the field clinched, Matt Kenseth took the top position heading into the fifth race of the season, as NASCAR Stats points out:
Kenseth took the pole away from the competition with a final time of 38.438 seconds. His best speed was 187.315 mph, which narrowly edged out Brad Keselowski at 38.481 seconds and 187.105 for his best lap.
Jeff Gluck of USA Today notes that being at the top of the pack when the race begins isn't something new for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver:
This is the 12th career pole for Matt Kenseth. First since Homestead last year.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 22, 2014
Here's a look at the top 10 drivers after qualifying heading into the race at Auto Club Speedway. Full results for the race order can be found at NASCAR.com.
|Position||Name||Best Speed||Best Time|
With a new group format, NASCAR has been making tweaks to improve the process. But even with a few drivers being upset early on with the safety of the qualifying format, it appears to be slowly growing in popularity.
Now, you can cool your cars off in a timely manner and you can get yourself back out there and run you another lap if you have to.
Any kind of bubble driver or anything like that, you weren’t really safe before, but now you’re really not safe because that guy can come up. You kind of knew how to play your cards because you knew darn well that if that guy went out there with three minutes or four minutes to go and didn’t quite beat you, that he didn’t have a chance to get back out there and do it again.
Now he can get in there and get that baby cooled off, make an adjustment and he just might bump you off the bubble. That’s going to cause you to go out there and make another lap. It’s going to be even more nerve-wracking now than it ever was.
The first round of qualifying left just 24 drivers standing to move on to the next round. While several drivers were left to earn one of the top spots, several notable drivers failed to garner a fast enough time.
Gluck of USA Today notes those who did qualify for the second round and some of the notables who didn't get in:
Here's who made next round: 29-48-22-24-15-78-55-14-99-9-11-42-47-31-16-2-88-7-17-43-3-18. Notables who missed: McMurray, Kahne, Danica.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 22, 2014
The 29 car at the front was actually the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick, as Gluck would later point out:
Oh crap. Yes, I tweeted 29 for Harvick. Yes, I'm stuck in 2013. #mybad— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 22, 2014
Danica Patrick missing the top 24 is far from surprising, but still worth mentioning due to her popularity in the sport. The No. 10 car struggled once again and couldn't get a fast enough time to reach the second portion of qualifying.
As for the final round of qualifying, the 12 drivers making the final field were reported by Nate Ryan of USA Today:
The 12 drivers for the final qualifying session: 24 20 42 48 15 99 22 4 14 2 9 78. #nascar— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) March 22, 2014
Even through a crowded field that included multiple champions, Kenseth was able to navigate his way to the top with another strong time. The seven-time winner from last season hasn't captured a victory this season, but he could be primed to pull one out at the Auto Club Speedway.
Ryan points out that the new format hasn't been an easy one for Kenseth to master thus far:
Matt Kenseth, who struggled in qualifying early this season, rebounds with pole at Fontana. Then 2 48 4 15 24 22 9 99 14 42 78. #nascar— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) March 22, 2014
As for Keselowski, it was just business as usual for the current Sprint Cup points leader. Keselowski has been one of the most dominant drivers on the season and has exhibited that each time that he goes out on the track.
NASCAR Stats notes that the driver will now be starting on the front row for every race outside of the Daytona 500:
Keselowski will start Sunday on the outside of the front row. It will be his 4th consecutive front-row start. #NASCAR— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) March 22, 2014
While some drivers were able to excel in later runnings on the track, Jimmie Johnson stuck tight at the No. 3 position after Keselowski took over the top spot on his final lap.
The six-time points champion spoke about the track conditions late in the qualifying round, per Gluck:
Jimmie Johnson says he was "shocked" that some guys were able to improve their lap times on second attempts. Cited cooling track conditions.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 22, 2014
With Keselowski sitting at the top coming in, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion could once again have a strong running when Sunday rolls around. But with Kenseth finally getting to start at the top of the field at Auto Club Speedway, he might see a return to last year's success with a good showing.
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter: